It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and yet most of us are running around frantically and completely stressed out. Some stress can’t be avoided: the lines at checkout are beyond your control, for example. But it is important to know that as your stress level raises, it can have several negative effects on your body.
Let’s set up a scenario. In the unlikely event that you find yourself alone in the woods, unarmed, and with a tiger crouching nearby in an effort to determine his best course of action for catching and devouring you, the following would occur inside your body:
- increased heart rate (up to 3x its normal rate)
- increased arterial pressure
- increased blood flow to muscles/decreased blood flow to organs such as your gastrointestinal tract and kidneys
- rapid increase in cortisol levels, which suppress the immune system
Several other things happen, but the point is that in the above scenario, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode (1). This is caused by a mass discharge of large portions of the sympathetic nervous system, and is intended to prepare you for either fighting the tiger or running away from it. I’d say your chances are better if you run, but let’s hope you don’t find yourself in that particular situation.
The interesting part about the stress response is that it is wired to respond to both mental and physical stress. So the tiger that was staring you down is now the checkout line at the toy store, or your mother in-law (not mine, of course, because she’s wonderful and I love her dearly), or your work deadline, or the financial burden of buying everyone and their brother’s dog a Christmas present. Stress is stress, no matter what the causal factor is. So whether you’re in immediate danger of being eaten alive, or worrying about burning the Christmas cookies, your body reacts the same.
Our ancestors often found themselves in life or death, tiger vs. man situations. Stressors today are much different, and yet our bodies still respond the same. The stress response which used to be beneficial in short bursts is now prolonged and can lead to stress-related disorders such as heart disease, peptic ulcers, growth disorders, hormone dysregulation leading to irregular menses or decreased sperm count, and decreased sexual behavior (2). The difference is that the “tiger” doesn’t stop chasing us. We constantly worry, fear, and agitate ourselves over matters both within and out of our control.
Some stressors can’t be avoided, but it’s important to take control of what can be controlled in order to eliminate extra stress. (The easiest things to control are your habits in diet and exercise. Keep reading for more details, but you had to see that one coming.) Here are three tips to get you through the holidays and beyond:
- Eat right. Every meal either promotes or inhibits inflammation. So even if you’re in a hurry, make sure you’re getting plenty of veggies, fruits, and proteins in your diet. Nix the whole grains and opt for animal proteins and veggies instead. (Please, please, please stop listening when commercials tell you that grains are healthy. They’re not. Read David Seaman, DC’s Deflaming Guide here and stop feeding yourself bowls of stress.)
- Exercise. I know your holiday schedule is full, and adding a workout regimen is the last thing on your list to do before Santa gets here. But all of that stress that you’ve built up is actually meant for strenuous physical activity, so you might as well use it for good! (I recommend weights and cardio over wrestling a tiger.)
- Find joy. Easier said than done, I know. If you know what makes you happy, make sure you include it in your daily routine. Perhaps singing Mariah Carey’s rendition of “All I Want for Christmas” at the top of your lungs never fails to put a smile on your face. If that’s the case, belt away, my friend. If reading Twas the Night Before Christmas with your kids warms your heart and soul, don your cap or kerchief and read. Maybe finding a new place to hide your Elf on a Shelf tickles your fancy, so get creative and play hide and seek with that creepy little dude. Whenever you get a chance at a small dose of joy, take it, be grateful for it, and enjoy it!
That should be enough to get you through the next few weeks. Remember to not freak out over what is out of your control, and maintain a firm grasp on what is within your control.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and have a safe, stress-free holiday season with your friends and loved ones!
Dr. Lindsay Mumma – firstname.lastname@example.org – is a chiropractor at Triangle Chiropractic and Rehabilitation Center in Raleigh, NC. Her clinic focuses on offering multiple manual therapy options for pain management and functional improvement. For more information, please visit www.triangleCRC.com .
1. Guyton and Hall. Textbook of Medical Physiology. 12th ed. Jackson, MS; Univ. of Mississippi Medical Center; 2001:738-739,824-825.
2. Sapolsky, Robert M. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. First Owl; New York, NY; 2004.